Story: Ralphie Parker has a lot on his mind in Hammond, Indiana in 1938. Fueled by his devotion to popular fictional hero Red Ryder, Ralphie has his heart set on a genuine Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle, useful for assisting Red Ryder himself in his ongoing battles with Black Bart and other assorted villains. It even has a compass and a built-in watch.
While Red Ryder instructs Ralphie that their purpose is never to kill or wound but rather to shoot guns out of bad guys’ hands, every other adult tells Ralphie that the BB gun will only “put your eye out!”
Nevertheless, Ralphie makes both subtle and unsubtle references to the rifle incessantly to Mother and The Old Man while the family prepares for Christmas. Meanwhile, Ralphie contends with relentless school bully Scut Farkas and the demands of his teacher, Miss Shields.
He deals as well with the affection of lovely classmate Esther Jane, the reckless dares of his buddy Schwartz, the misfortunes of his pal Flick and the never-ending search for little brother Randy, who has a propensity for hiding in unlikely places.
Not to mention saying the big, bad word that leads to a mouth-washing with soap, the Old Man’s obsession with contests, frequent battles with an irascible furnace and Mother’s penchant for meatloaf and red cabbage. Yep, the world is a complicated place.
Highlights: Philip Grecian’s charming, two-act comedy, a big hit for The Rep when first presented there in 2009, returns under the sure-handed guidance of Rep associate artistic director Seth Gordon just in time for mirth-making and a jolly good go to mesh with the holiday season. Gordon coaxes delightful performances out of his ingratiating cast of children as well as several amiable adults to make this Christmas Story a pleasing yuletide yarn.
Other Info: Grecian’s comedy is based on the 1983 movie of the same title, which featured a screenplay by Jean Shepherd (along with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark), as he reminisced about his childhood days in northwestern Indiana, as well as Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
All of the familiar highlights from the holiday classic are here, including The Old Man’s prized “leg lamp” won in one of his endless contest submissions, the ill-fated encounter of Flick’s tongue with a frozen pole and Ralphie’s imaginative adventures saving pioneer families or impressing his swooning teacher with his writing genius.
This is Gordon’s seventh go-around with Shepherd’s nostalgic whimsy since he first directed a production at the Cleveland Play House in 2005, which actually was the comedy’s initial professional performance anywhere. He and Grecian continued to fine-tune this version of A Christmas Story (there’s also a musical rendition) for several years.
This newest presentation at The Rep plays out on a wondrous scenic design created by Michael Ganio, which constitutes not one or two but three different and equally impressive sets. There’s an opening collage of Christmas tree and giant presents as well as a humorous, second-act set as a Santa Claus village at a Hammond department store. In between there’s the modest but sturdy, two-tier home of the Parkers, with Ralphie’s bedroom above the family’s comfy living room which adjoins the kitchen.
Lighting designer Peter Sargent wistfully illuminates it all, highlighted by some flashing headlights on the trusty old Parker automobile as well as several strings of old-fashioned Christmas bulbs which hover above the action. Sound designer Rusty Wandall fills his contribution with a variety of whimsical sounds, including a blown tire, melodramatic music for the Bad Bart confrontation, barking dogs harassing the Old Man and classical strains for some heartwarming scenes.
David Kay Mickelsen adds further whimsy with his noteworthy era costumes, including multiple layers for Randy to weather the harsh Indiana winters and the comfortable attire of grown-up Ralph as he narrates this tale.
Gordon does a terrific job working with the seven children in the story, all of whom are irrepressible as they infuse their characters with gusto and an air of genuine believability. Charlie Mathis is endearing as intrepid Ralphie, whether dreaming of how his holiday report will win over his harsh teacher, Miss Shields, or in his give-and-take with the lovely Esther Jane, who is played with affection and stylish amusement by Ana McAlister.
Rhadi Smith and Dan Wolfe are engaging as Ralphie’s chums Schwartz and Flick, respectively, the latter most unfortunately taking a bet that he can ‘lick’ a frozen pole without consequence, the former humorously protesting his innocence after Ralphie tells Mother that he learned the ‘bad word’ from good ol’ Schwartz.
Gigi Koster nails the proper superiority of Helen, a little girl whose science project was understood by only three scientists, while Tanner Gilbertson makes for a fine foil of a villain as bully Scut Farkas. Spencer Slavik is a hoot as Ralphie’s younger brother, a lad who likes to hide rather than be seen.
The adults are equally adept, including Brad Fraizer, who displays considerable dexterity and acrobatic skills as The Old Man, especially when he wages war with the cantankerous lid on a large box containing his mysterious ‘prize.’ Laurel Casillo shows Mother is a pretty sharp cookie when it comes to those contests herself as well as understanding her husband’s shortcomings.
Jo Twiss is humorous in a couple of scenes as Miss Shields, especially a dream sequence when she and Mother torment poor Ralphie. Completing the cast is Ted Deasy as the adult Ralph, wandering the perimeter of the stage as he softly narrates this rose-colored reminiscence as well as making a cameo appearance as Red Ryder himself.
A Christmas Story lacks the gravitas of Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol but it has its own legion of fans who doubtless recall fond memories of their own childhood holidays. Nothing wrong with that.
Play: A Christmas Story
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through December 23
Tickets: $24-$97; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.